October 17, 2022
‘The law is not right’: the lawyer suing the Maltese government over abortion
By Megan Clement
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The tiny island of Malta is home to the only total ban on abortion in the European Union. This little-known fact was one that American tourist Andrea Prudente discovered too late when she began to miscarry while holidaying on the island in June this year. Though the pregnancy was no longer viable, and despite her high risk of haemorrhage, she was denied the urgent medical care required to complete the miscarriage, because doctors could still detect a foetal heartbeat.
After days of waiting for either the heartbeat to stop, or for Prudente to develop life-threatening sepsis – a process her partner Jay
The case made global headlines and shone a spotlight on one of the most extreme abortion laws in the world. Now, Prudente is suing the Maltese government on the basis that its total abortion ban breached her human rights. Asked for a comment on the legal action, she told the Impact newsletter: “Sometimes abortion is not a choice, it’s just medical care.”
Prudente is being represented by Maltese lawyer Lara Dimitrijevic, who
Megan Clement Tell me why you are suing the Maltese government on behalf of your client.
Lara Dimitrijevic The trauma that Andrea had to go through was unjustified. The decisions taken were unjustified, and it was for these reasons that the case was tabled two weeks ago. It’s a human rights case, and the rights invoked are breach of privacy and family life – her own life because she was not given a decision; article three, which is inhuman and degrading treatment, for the pain and trauma that she was unnecessarily put through; article two, which is her right to life, because it was a serious medical situation that could have potentially lead to her loss of life; and article fourteen, which is discrimination, because having a total ban on abortion
Megan Clement Have there been cases like this before in Malta?
Lara Dimitrijevic This is the first of its kind. There have been instances where I was about to take a case, but my clients retracted because there is a lot of fear. There was a fear of being publicly exposed because Malta’s a small country, and some had jobs with the state. This case is something that’s been a long time coming. For me, doing this case was nothing out of the ordinary because it’s been something that I’ve been planning for a long time.
Megan Clement In that sense, does it help that Andrea was a visitor to the island?
Lara Dimitrijevic I think in a way, yes, that has helped. This case generated global attention, it coincidentally happened to be the same week that Roe vs Wade [was overturned], and she is American. Because she was foreign to the island, there was less of that fear that she would face repercussions. Since she grabbed the bull by the horns and went with it, we have had a number of women who have come forward, and we have two cases that will potentially be filed in the coming months. The minister of health, who is also the deputy prime minister, just announced this week that a law will be tabled to amend the total ban. What this is going to include we have no idea,
Megan Clement What will happen if Andrea wins her case?
Lara Dimitrijevic It’s up to the state whether they would amend the laws because of an individual breach of human rights. Not necessarily. It could be that the judiciary would then turn to parliament and say, “You have to amend the legislation.” But I think that just by the very fact that you have a judgment from a court that is independent and impartial, securing rights and saying, “This was wrong” – I think that would speak volumes. It would reaffirm that we need this change.
Megan Clement What opposition are you up against in Malta?
Lara Dimitrijevic Anti-abortion [sentiment] comes in degrees. You have the extremists, who do concern me because you might have the one person who could be extreme to the extent that they could become a threat to women. [Editor’s note: Dimitrijevic herself has received threats for her activism, including having bullets left at her home]
Megan Clement Abortion has been taboo in Malta for a very long time. Do you get a sense that things are beginning to change?
Lara Dimitrijevic Things have been changing faster than I would have expected. Since we started our pro-choice campaign, we have seen a major shift. We recently ran a poll that clearly indicates that there has been a shift to the positive. We thank Andrea for her courage
Megan Clement Are you hopeful that you will see abortion at least partially decriminalized in the coming years?
Lara Dimitrijevic Yes I am, and I think sooner than one would expect. There are indications that we are going to have a shift from a total ban. I’m not anticipating anything grand, but just by the very fact that the government is taking this on board, and considering some form of amendment to the legislation, is already positive. We have successfully campaigned, which is something I am proud of for myself and my sisters and colleagues.
Megan Clement After Roe vs Wade fell, we have seen a campaign for France to inscribe the right to abortion into its consitution, and the voters of Chile just rejected a proposed constitution that did so. Do you think abortion should be an explicit constitutional right?
Lara Dimitrijevic 100% – simply because with this shift to right-wing ideology and the heavy backlash that we’re seeing, women’s rights
Megan Clement We
Lara Dimitrijevic I am privileged to keep going. When I say I’m privileged, it’s because I have a good family support structure and I am self-employed so I don’t have to worry about any repercussions that I could face at my job. But I am also very firm in my convictions. This is something that needs to be done and I cannot imagine myself not doing it.
This issue of Impact was prepared by Rebecca Amsellem, Anna Pujol-Mazzini and Megan Clement.
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